Sabbath and Original Blessing | Lent 4 | March 11

Texts: Genesis 1:1-13; 1:26-2:3; John 3:14-21

Long, long ago, before you and me – before people – before animals, plants and bacteria, before the earth, and stars, before anything.  When the universe was just an unrehearsed verse in the mind of God, all was dark and unformed.  Only a breath from the Creator swept across the void.

The breath gathered into a shape, a word.  That word was “light,” and when it was spoken, there it was – light.  And the Creator saw that the light was good.  The light was separated from the darkness, and thus began the dance of night and day, evening and morning.

The generation of light was assigned to the stars, and with it the power of creating the full range of elements.   Stars were born and stars died, and in their death they seeded the expanding order with these elemental gifts out of which the rest of creation would be formed.

The Creator spoke again.  Rocks clustered and crashed and formed a planet, a dome with waters above and below, sky and seas, and dry land.  And the Creator saw that this was good.  To the land and sea was given the power to bring forth life.  Plants of all kinds grew and flourished.  To them was given the ability to catch the sun, to splice molecules and rearrange elements to create food for themselves and enrich the atmosphere.  Animals of all kinds grew and flourished, fed by the plants and air.  The land and the sea teamed with life.  The rhythm of evening and morning continued, as life improvised a melody.  And the Creator saw and heard that it was good.

The Creator spoke again, the most daring word yet.  “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them” have self-reflective consciousness to make their own decisions to direct the ongoing unfolding of creation.  And so it was.  God created humanity, in its full range of gender, in the likeness of the Creator.

The Creator blessed them:  Creatures to continue the creative process, in concert with the stars, the earth and waters, the plants and animals.  God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good.  And there was evening, and there was morning.

If all this could be condensed down to a week, we would have just finished day six.  Humanity is not the end of the story, not God’s final word on the matter.  They have been granted the powers to be co-creators with God, but there is something that happens first that’s even more important than more creating.

It’s a whole day, day seven, on which nothing of note happens.  For a whole day, nothing new is created.  On it, even God rests.  It’s a day that exists for itself, a day of pleasure and enjoyment, a day of ceasing from work.  A day of reveling in the goodness of creation and resting from whatever control and authority one might have over it.  It’s the first and only aspect of creation which God hallows – declares holy.  The seven day cyle forms a meta rhythm within which the daily rhythms of evening and morning take on their meaning.

This is, more or less, the Hebrew story of creation that begins our Bibles – with a bit of 21st century cosmology sprinkled in for good measure.

It’s a creation that gets a five star review with eight words in the comment section.  Good.  Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Very Good.  That’s how many times that word shows up in Genesis 1.

In summary, it’s all good.  The light is good.  The dark is good.  The earth is good.  The stars are good.  Life is good.  It is lovely and loved.  A literal translation of John 3:16 is “For God so loved the kosmos.”

The cosmos, the world, is good.  Material reality is good.  Creatureliness is good.  Bodies are good.  Sexuality is good.  Skin and flowers and taste buds and supernovae are good.  Creation has a Divine blessing and it, we, all of this, is very good.

That’s how the story begins.  Goodness and blessing get the first word.

The story does continue, and, as you may be aware, it takes a turn toward the not-so-good.  The humans begin to use their tremendous power against each other and against the earth.  The earth is soon filled with violence.  Brother kills brother.  Tribe battles tribe, forgetting they are a part of the same extended family.  The Creator just about hits control-alt-delete on the whole project by sending a flood to clean the slate and do a system reboot.  It’s not a particularly effective strategy.  The survivors spread out over the earth.  They are complicated creatures.  They perform acts of great courage, love, devotion, and healing.  They commit acts of tremendous violence against neighbors and so called enemies.  At times they even harm themselves.  This cycles through the generations, with the sins of the parents often passed down to the children and grandchildren and so on up to today.  The goodness of creation is not lost, but is often forgotten, hard to see.

Christians have always believed that the person of Jesus plays a central role in this grand drama.

The third chapter of John’s gospel presents one of the ways Jesus understood the meaning of his own life and death.  It involves a serpent, although not the one from the Garden of Eden that gets much of the credit for steering humanity down the wrong path.  This  serpent comes from the wilderness, from the time of Moses and the Israelites.

This is what Jesus says: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have abundant life.”

It’s a reference to the story in Numbers 21, when the Israelites face an infestation of venomous snakes biting and killing them.  The people beg Moses to do something – to pray that the Lord will take the serpents away.  Moses prays and receives instructions that, at first glance, seem strange to the modern mind.  Rather than getting rid of the serpents, Moses creates another serpent, this one out of bronze.  This bonus serpent is then mounted up on a pole.  When the people get bit, they are to look up at the bronze serpent and in doing so, they will live.

In this story, the source of healing is found within the source of harm.  The serpents are not hidden or banished, or defeated, they are elevated for all to see.  And it is in seeing clearly, in gazing upon, that which is destroying the community, that the community is preserved.

This is how Jesus interprets his own death.  He too will be lifted up.  For him it will be on a Roman instrument of torture.  The cross embodies all that is abusive and violent about humanity’s misuse of power.  The violence of the cross is what has been destroying the community throughout history, like a venomous snake that keeps biting and biting.  And now, the path back to life, the way to defeat the serpents and live into the goodness of creation, must involve gazing on the very violence on which humanity has come to depend to hold up the whole apparatus that we think keeps us secure and moving forward in history.  In gazing on the cross, we discover our own complicity in the violence, and thus are presented a way out.

Mennonite pastor Horace McMillon recently wrote an essay about how his understanding of the bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus has been deepened through the story of the murder of Emmett Till.  Emmett Till was born and raised in Chicago.  In 1955, when he was 14, his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, sent him down to Mississippi to visit family.  While there, Emmett entered a store and got into a conversation with Carolyn Bryant.  She was 21, married to the store owner, and white.  Emmett Till was black and had unknowingly violated the color codes of the Jim Crow South.  Emmett was accused of making sexual advances toward Mrs. Bryant.  Her husband and his brother abducted Emmett from the home where he was staying, beat him, shot him, mutilated his body, and threw him in the Tallehatchie River.

When his body was recovered, Mamie Till Bradley made the decision that her son would not only have a public funeral, but that it would be an open casket.  In gazing on the brutalized body of Emmett Till, the world was forced to confront the violence of racism and the sin of white supremacy festering in society.  The death of Emmitt Till, his body lifted up for all to see, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, like Jesus on the cross, like Michael Brown on the street of Fergusson, Missouri….Emmit Till became one of the galvanizing moments for the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

Exposing and thus overcoming violence is one of the ways Jesus interprets his own death within a good creation that has lost its way.

But looking at a cross is hard work.  Especially when it keeps showing up in the headlines every day in the form of murdered school children, refugees fleeing war, mass incarceration and deportation, you fill out your own list.  We are in one sense saved from our complacency in being willing to gaze on these sins of humanity.  We are pointed toward the grace of God. In another sense, we can quickly succumb to cross-gazing fatigue, outrage fatigue, compassion fatigue, fatigue fatigue.

We need another part of the story to sustain us.  We need a story that leads us back to the goodness of creation, to life as a blessing and a gift to be enjoyed.

Back in the 1980’s Matthew Fox wrote a book called Original Blessing.  It was his way of offering a corrective to the church’s longtime emphasis on original sin.  One of his key points was that even deeper than violence and sin is the reality of blessing and goodness.  Genesis 1 comes before, Genesis 2 and 3, and so, he reminds us, we are, at our deepest core, in our truest self, blessed and beloved of God.

Gazing at the cross, in all its many forms and faces, is six day a week work.  It’s painful work, and one of the ways we journey with Jesus through life.  It is a constant reminder of the power of our collective sin to destroy and harm life.

But Sabbath can be our way back to original blessing.

Sabbath invites us to cease even from struggling to do good, and to simply receive the goodness already given, which is from God, which has been from the beginning.

Original blessing, like Genesis 1, is the language of faith.  It’s the language of myth, in the best sense of the world.  There is no actual point in history in which everything was perfect and good.  There is no point to return to in order to “Make creation great again.”

It is the language of faith that offers us original blessing.  It’s a container that holds everything else.  And it makes a profound difference to operate out of a mode of original blessing.  Original blessing impacts how we understand our bodies, and bodies that are different than ours, because they too are blessed.  Original blessing is a container able to hold all the sorrow, and all the joy in the world.  Original blessing can hold the Christ of the cross, and the Christ of the incarnation which participates in the material world not to solve any problems, but simply because of its goodness.  Because God so loves the kosmos.

Original blessing may not be a historical point in time to return to, but Sabbath is.  Sabbath is a recurring point in time, it is embodied history, and it comes around on a seven day cycle.  Sabbath practice is a way of living out the blessedness of creation within history.  To practice Sabbath is to enter into the rest of God’s goodness, to relish in that goodness all around us, to approach the world and people not as a set of problems to be solved, but as a gift to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Throughout Scripture the word remember is frequently attached to the Sabbath.  Remember the Sabbath.  Remember.  It provokes the question of what is it we forget when we forget to Sabbath?  What of blessing, what of goodness, what of life abundant, what of Christ do we forget?

Remember that you are blessed.  Remember that you are beloved.  Remember that you are created in the image of God in order to create this world with God, and in order to sabbath with God and enjoy the goodness that is ours.




Sabbath and Time | Lent 1 | February 18

Texts: Mark 1:9-15; Exodus 16:1-5; 13-26

Over the years I’ve watched my fair share of TED talks.  One that left a big impression was also one of the shortest.  It’s a talk by Jessa Gamble from way back in 2010 titled “Our natural sleep cycle is nothing like what we do now.”   Rather than the standard 18ish minute TED talk, this one is only three minutes and 55 seconds.

Her talk goes something like this: Humans, like all other multicell organisms, plants and animals, have an internal clock.  It’s part of our chemical make up, linked to the daily cycle of light and darkness.  Humans evolved close to the equator, where days and nights are about equal, so our body clocks are most naturally equipped for this kind of cycle.  But we’ve spread to every corner of the globe, where daylight and night time hours are not evenly split, and of course our modern world of abundant artificial light throws another curve at our sleeping patterns.

But we seem to have a fairly persistent body clock, even when we don’t know whether it’s night or day.  Jessa Gamble cites studies of people having their watches taken away and living in a bunker underground for weeks and months at time, with a combination of darkness and artificial light.  After the initial disorientation, participants settled into a consistent sleeping pattern, what Gamble and others refer to as our natural sleep cycle.  It matched up with what we know about pre-industrial sleeping patterns.

It turns out we most naturally sleep twice, rather than once.  Participants would go to sleep around 8pm, wake up around midnight, have about a two hour span of alert wakefulness, and then go back to sleep from about 2am until sunrise.  Eight hours of sleep in a ten hour window…ish.  During those middle two waking hours the body releases high doses of prolactin, a chemical with all kinds of positive health benefits.

This is how Gamble ends her talk:

“The people in these studies report feeling so awake during the day time that they realize they’re experiencing true wakefulness for the first time in their lives.  So, cut to modern day, we’re living in a culture of jet lag, global travel, 24 hour business, shift work.  And our modern ways of doing things have their advantages, but I believe we should understand the costs.  Thank you.”  End of TED talk.

I don’t remember when I first watched this.  It was probably around 11pm, when my not-so-distant ancestors would have been sleeping their way toward their daily surge of prolactin, and I was trying to milk the day for just one more thing before trying to fall asleep.  I do remember how I felt right after those closing lines about true wakefulness.  It was like someone shows you something beautiful and says, “This, this is your birthright.  But you know you can’t get it.”  And then says, “But I dare you to try.”

This short talk that I’ve never really stopped thinking about came to mind soon after we settled on Sabbath as the theme for Lent.  Practicing Sabbath in the modern world often feels about as practical as the pre-industrial, pre-artificial light sleep cycle – for many of the same reasons.  There are just so many factors working against us.

One option would be for us to dive into the history and purpose and theology and poetic praise of Sabbath, to paint a beautiful picture of what could be, and then end by saying, “Well, at least now we know what we’re missing.”

Another option would be to do that first part, to look more deeply into Sabbath scriptures and practices and their meaning, to glimpse something beautiful that is our birthright, and then dare ourselves to try.

I’m aiming for the latter.  As I’ve been in conversation with Mark and Robin and Worship Commission about this Lent, we share a hope that Sabbath practices, Sabbath-making, being made by Sabbath, might become a more important part of our lives, individually and collectively, as a result of this season.

So let’s get started and see where this leads.

The first Sunday of Lent always takes us out into the wilderness, with Jesus.  Jesus has just undergone that radical life-defining water ritual of baptism.  He had come from Nazareth, where he grew up, in the Galilee region, and opted in to the restoration movement initiated by John the Baptizer.  Under the hand of John, Jesus goes down under the waters of the Jordan.  As he emerges he’s greeted by a feathered Spirit, a dove descending toward him, and a voice that proclaims him a Beloved Son.

This, however, is only the beginning of Jesus’ initiation into the work ahead of him and the kind of consciousness he must have to fulfill it.  In Mark’s urgent style of narration, that same dove-like Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness, where he lived for 40 days.

In the scriptures the wilderness is a place of education.  Of learning and un-learning.  A prime location in the Divine pedagogy.  Separated from one’s usual environment, and from the life-support systems of civilization, one faces down everything one most fears, is exposed to one’s limitations, is confronted with one’s desires.  In the wilderness one must separate intuition from temptation.  Sort through the voices in one’s head and find the center that holds.  Mark summarizes all this by saying Jesus was “tempted by Satan; and the angels waited on him.”

Those 40 wilderness days are re-lived each year in the liturgical season of Lent.  Throughout Lent we enter into the wilderness with Jesus.  The wilderness is a place of re-education, refinement, casting off things you don’t need; finding something you didn’t know you’d lost.  Sort of like going down into a bunker for a while and re-disovering your natural sleep cycle.  The trick is how to have the wilderness experience while life goes on as usual.  Maybe life has to stop going on as usual.

This is not a Sabbath passage, per se, but it does set the stage in some way for Sabbath-living.  Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters, then emerges from the wilderness, with a message.  It’s a message summarized in Mark 1:15, placed on the tongue of Jesus:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Turn, change your mind, and believe this good news.”

This is Jesus’ elevator speech, and it’s very much focused on a peculiar way of living in relation to time.  Living, as if time has reached its fulfillment, and the kingdom of God is present and pervasive.  Such that we can relax in to a world defined by compassion, peacefulness, and neighborliness.  That’s the good news Jesus proclaims.  It’s an invitation to a certain consciousness about time which affects every aspect of how we live and move and relate within time.  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

In the middle of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote what is still the definitive work on Sabbath in the modern world.  One of his key ideas is that humans have gotten pretty good at mastering the world of space.  Not space travel space, but space as in the world of things.  Three dimensional space.  Atoms, molecules; roads and cars; streets and buildings; mining and manufacturing.  He calls all this “technical civilization,” which excels at the conquest of space.

He traces our pre-occupation with space and things back through ancient religions that located deities in particular locations, “like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are…singled out as holy places” (p. 4).

And then he turns a corner:

He writes: “Indeed, we know what to do with space, but do not know what to do with time, except make it subservient to space.  Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.  Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.  Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space”  (p. 5).

Heschel proposes that we’ve missed the point.  That it is that mysterious 4th dimension we call time which is most sacred.  That holiness is most deeply experienced not in sacred objects but in sacred moments.  And that Sabbath is the primary embodiment of time’s holiness.

He writes: “Sabbaths are our great cathedrals” (p.8).  The Sabbath is “a palace in time,” a “sanctuary in time.”  It puts a different spin on this concept of sanctuary we’ve been working on for a while now.  Sanctuary has to do with how we use our space, but also has to do with how we use time.   When we live in such a way that we enter regularly into sanctuaries in time, we are on our way to Sabbath living.

The first biblical account of people engaging in Sabbath practice is found in Exodus 16.  It takes place, not coincidentally, in the wilderness.  The wilderness is a place of education and re-education, learning and unlearning.  What the Hebrews are unlearning in the wilderness, throughout Exodus, is their deep enculturation into Pharaoh’s time clock.  For generations the Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt, under the regime of Pharaoh.  In Egypt, there were no Sabbaths.  Under Pharaoh’s anxious eye, the demands for production were always rising and time as a gift of being was always in recession.

But the Hebrews had been delivered out of slavery by Yahweh, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam, who led them through the Red Sea which now marks the beginning of a new era of re-education in the wilderness where they will be for 40 years.

The wilderness can be a fearful place, without the life support systems one has come to depend on.  As if to confront this head on, the first instance of collective Sabbath practice has to do with something as absolutely necessary as food.  There will be manna in the desert six days a week, and on the sixth day they are to gather enough for two days, because the seventh day will be a Sabbath, when they will celebrate the enoughness of what they have, and there will be no need to gather.

It’s a new kind of rhythm that will come to define their lives.  Under the regime of Yahweh, time is not merely for labor and provision and altering the world of space.  It is for dwelling content within the world of time.  Defined not by acquisitiveness or accumulation, but by restful enjoyment.  Or, in the words of Jessa Gamble and those bunker experiment participants: “True wakefulness.”

Very soon the Israelites will come to a mountain in the desert where they’ll be given 10 commandments to order their lives.  Sabbath is one of those commandments.  More on that in the coming weeks.

The Christian default mode is perhaps to assume that Sabbath is the one commandment Jesus didn’t particularly care for – and neither should we.  He was rather fond of pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on the Sabbath, but it was always in the direction of healing and wholeness and restoration.  Not so much in the direction of a more frenzied life.

His message about the time being fulfilled and the Kingdom of God being near could be understood as an expansion of Sabbath and Jubilee.  They’re so good and beautiful that they’re in the process of taking over the world.  They’re our birthright as beloved sons and daughters of God.

As distant and almost impossible as it may seem much of the time, what if our lives would more and more come to be ordered around sanctuaries in time that we enter and enjoy?  Regularly.

Marking the spot: Dreams and blessings for the journey

Text: Genesis 28:10-19     

Coming of Age Celebration

What do a baby doll, a Bible, a notebook, a water pitcher, a blanket, a red kick ball, and a communion cup have in common?  This winter I’ve been a guest in each of our elementary school age Sunday school classes.  Our Christian Education Commission asked me to talk with our young people about rituals in the church and why we do them.  Those objects are some of the props I’ve been carting around.

Many of these rituals are ones we share in common with other Christians.  In these classes we’ve started out by gathering in a circle around the red kick ball, which serves as our sun.  We talk about the liturgical calendar.  So far we’ve managed to circle through the seasons of the church year without breaking out in a spontaneous game of dodgeball, but there have been a couple close calls.  After the full circle we talk about Communion and baptism and what they mean to us.

We also talk about the different rituals they will experience as they grow up in this particular congregation.  We dedicate babies as a way of blessing families and committing to raising children as a community.  We give Bibles to second graders and encourage them to be in lively conversation with Bible stories.  Toward the beginning of high school we have a catechism class that gives a big overview of how Mennonites have understood Christian faith.  At the end of high school, we wrap you in a blanket that will be yours to take with you wherever you’re headed next.

Toward the middle of that progression, usually in your twelfth year, is this Coming of Age celebration.  It’s our way, as a congregation, of marking that major transition from childhood to adolescence.  We like to make a big deal out of it because it is a big deal.  Cultures around the world have found it vital, in their own way, to mark entry into this new stage of increased independence and responsibility.

I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever had one of my own children Coming of Age, so it makes me wonder if I am now coming of age as a parent – entering parent tweenagehood.

So Eve, Mira, and Ivan – Hello.  One of the ways you have helped design this service was by choosing the scripture.  We looked at a couple different stories and the one that you chose was this one about Jacob in Genesis 28.  Jacob has this strange dream about this stairway or ladder that goes between the earth and heaven.  During the dream God tells him that God will always be with him.  It’s such an important experience that Jacob marks the spot with a rock that he sets up as a pillar.  He even anoints the rock with oil, which I believe was Ivan’s favorite part of the skit.

So what does this story, this dream, this stairway to heaven, this rock, have to do with you?

One of the first things to note about this story is that it is a story about leaving home.  Jacob has lived with his mother Rebecca and father Isaac and his older twin Esau his whole life.  This is the first we know of Jacob setting out on his own, all by himself.  His plan is to go from Beer Sheba in the south, way up to Haran in the north, to meet with his uncle Laban and find a suitable wife for himself.  So Jacob is getting a little ahead of us since I’m not aware any of you are planning on leaving home or finding a spouse anytime in the next few years.

But in this stage of life we call adolescence, we begin the process of leaving home.  Even though you still have a number of years living with your parents, you’re already starting to peak out the front door and see what else is going on in the world.  It isn’t a physical leaving home yet, but there’s something within you taking place where your world is opening up much wider than just your home, just your family, just the familiar and comfortable world that you have known your whole life.

You’re starting that process of moving out into the world, and this is a good thing.  You’re welcoming relationships and experiences that you have apart from parents and home.  And there’s this sense of boundless potential that you might feel, wide open possibility, and that gives all of us who know you great joy when we think about that.

So we meet up with Jacob when he is leaving home.  And he’s in this in between place.  Not home anymore, in Beer Sheba, and not yet at his destination, Haran.  Maybe for you this is kind of like not being in childhood anymore, but not yet quite in adulthood.  You’re officially in between.  And in this in between land, Jacob comes to a certain place.  It’s getting dark, so he stops traveling for the day.  He looks around like any resourceful young person might do, and finds a good rock to use as a pillow, and camps out for the night.

This is a camping story.  Maybe we learn some things when we camp that we can’t learn when we’re safe inside our house with our comfy mattress and soft pillow.  Jacob is on a solo camping trip, but he soon finds out he is not alone.

It must have been a pretty cozy rock, because the next thing we know, Jacob is asleep and he’s having a dream.  And this dream becomes a key experience for him.

Now I have on pretty good authority that each of you are big Harry Potter fans.  And so, on the subject of dreams, you might recall that in the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry keeps having this recurring dream about this mysterious corridor and a room where he is looking for something.  Harry’s mentor Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, is concerned that the Dark Lord Voldemort might be influencing Harry through these dreams, getting into his mind when his guard is down, and so Harry is supposed to be doing some training and learning techniques for how to keep his guard up while he is sleeping.

Well in the Bible, it’s God who gets into people’s minds while they are sleeping.  It’s in people’s dreams, when their guard is down, that God shows up and has a chance to show them a path, a place, a possibility, that they might otherwise not be aware of.

Jacob is one of the early dreamers in the Bible, and then his son Joseph turns out to be quite a dreamer, and interpreter of dreams.  Daniel has dreams about God and also interprets the dreams of the king of Babylon.  Many of the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, have dreams, or visions – dreams during the day – where God gives them a picture or words to speak to their people.  And then in the New Testament there’s Joseph the Dreamer part II, this guy who gets a series of dreams telling him what to do about this situation with this woman named Mary he’s supposed to be marrying who is already pregnant and whose baby, who they’re going to name Jesus, is threatened by the somewhat Lord Voldemort-ish King Herod.  Throughout the Bible dreams are an important way that God speaks to people.

And so instead of learning how to keep your guard up during dreams, your mentors and teachers and parents and pastors will be encouraging you to let your guard down, to let these mysterious messengers of God speak to you.

Pay attention to these things you sense deep within you about what is wrong with the world, or what is wonderful about the world, places where you see beauty and joy and love, these pictures that you have in your mind.  Dreams at night or during the day.  This is part of the way that God speaks to you.

Jacob is in a vulnerable and even scary situation.  He’s not at home anymore and not yet at his destination.  He’s in this in between land, camping out by himself.  He drifts off to sleep.

And when he dreams, he sees this stairway connecting earth and heaven.  The point of this stairway, it turns out, isn’t so Jacob can walk up and take a peek around the heavens and see what things are like.  The point is for Jacob to see that these two worlds that we can so often separate in our minds, the world of people and places and things, and the world of the heavens, the spiritual world of God, to see they are connected.  This stairway has angels going up and down. And the word for angels means messengers.  There are messengers going between, so Jacob sees that the lines of communication are wide open here.  Even though he’s camping on his own in the middle of nowhere, God is with him.

This stairway is a symbol of that connection.  It fills in the gap.  Like in your house where the stairway helps you get up and down between the different floors, so you’re not stuck on one or the other.  You can be in the whole house.

One of the people who has done a lot of thinking and writing about the relationship between human development, different stages of life, and faith development is a professor by the name of James Fowler.  He says that one of the things that begins to happen for you right about now is the process of synthesis – of drawing together different parts, different thoughts, different experiences and perspectives.  Parts that may not feel all that related right now, but parts that you will begin asking how they might hold together.  How do this and that fit together?  How can this and that both be true?

A big part of this has to do with personal identity.  We have this new consciousness in our early teen years where we start asking who we are.  We start paying more attention to who others say we are.  We have different groups of people in your life, and some of them don’t overlap very much.  You have your life at home.  You have the relationships in your extended family.  You have this group of folks at church.  You have your life at school with teachers and friends and people who you’re trying to figure out if they’re actually your friend.  You have all these parts, all these different yous – and you start to wonder: Well…which me am I?  Am I who my parents say I am?  Who my friends say I am?  Who the people I don’t get along with very well say I am?  Who church says I am?  Who’s right?

A big part of your life for the next number of years will be working on how all these parts fit together.

Jacob’s stairway is a message that there is a connection.  All these parts that feel separate and disjointed and almost like different worlds, do fit together.  And, most importantly, God is in each one of those places.  It’s like different rooms and levels all inside the same house, and you’re free to move around and explore.

God shows up alongside Jacob and tells Jacob that no matter where he goes, God will be with him.  God tells Jacob that he will be blessed, and that others will be blessed through him.  And that’s exactly what Jacob needs to know for this journey.  He doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, but he goes with a blessing.  Even though he’s in this in between place, God is with him, Love with a capital L is with him, and all of these different parts somehow will fit together some day.

So that’s the dream.  Jacob wakes up.  This is a dream he’s going to remember the rest of this life.  He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”  This place is like the house of God.

It’s such an important experience that he decides he has to mark the spot.  This has to be more than just a memory in his head.  He needs something physical as a reminder, so whenever he sees that thing he can remember the experience.  And so, being the resourceful young person that he is, he decides that this rock which has been his pillow is going to be a multipurpose rock.  He sets it up as a pillar, puts some oil on it, perhaps in the same way he would have put oil on his own head each morning as a lotion.  He treats the rock, the visible reminder of those messengers connecting earth and heaven, like he would treat his own face.  It’s now a part of him.  It fits into the person he’s becoming.

In the next part of our service we’ll be giving you a physical reminder of this day.  You’ll each receive a notebook that contains blessings and personal words from your church family.  Just like God sent Jacob with a blessing, we want to give you our blessing for the journey ahead.

Behold: Stars, Child, Church | Epiphany | January 7

Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,[a]
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.



The Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season starts in darkness and ends in light.  This follows the cycle of the natural world in the northern hemisphere.

It’s in the darkness that the living are renewed through rest and fresh possibilities.  The darkness is where we are awake to the quiet.  The darkness is the womb of Mary, where Christ grows.

Advent waits patiently for nativity.

And Jesus is born… into a world where emperors make decrees about census counts.  A world of people on the move, back and forth to ancestral lands, making pilgrimage to temples, visiting far off relatives, fleeing violence.  It’s a world of agriculture.  Wild grasses have become wheat and barley, wild beasts have become herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, foraging people have settled down and claimed lands to build, to farm, to accumulate wealth, to defend.   Jesus is born into a swirl of animals and angels, people hungry for food and kings hungry for power.

Nativity widens into Epiphany.

The prophet Isaiah lived well before Jesus, but the times weren’t all that different.  In words that have become an annual reading for the church’s celebration of Epiphany, Isaiah prophesies light:  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”  Despite outward appearances, Isaiah assures the people that the light is already in the process of breaking through, if they only lift up their eyes and look around.

After counseling the people to look and see the light, The Jewish Publication Society poetically translates verse five of Isaiah 60 in this way: “As you behold, you will glow; Your heart will throb and thrill.”

Behold is one of those great biblical words that has become underemployed in the modern world, along with thee and thou and begotten and smite.  To behold something is to perceive in such a way as to allow the presence of that thing to affect one’s own disposition, one’s inner self.  To behold another person is to allow the presence of that person into one’s field of consciousness.  Beholding is an intimate, vulnerable act.  To behold another, one must allow the protective membrane around oneself to be softened.  When we behold, neither we nor that which we behold go away unchanged.  Beholding involves an intersection of presence.

Isaiah dares the people to behold the light whose source is God.  It’s a call to behold that which precedes emperors and their empires, commanders and their armies, even people, plants, and animals, domesticated and wild.  To behold the light whose source is God is to be in the presence of that which brought the world into being, out of which all things have been made.

My thoughts on this are no doubt influenced by the week between Christmas and New Years with Abbie’s family in Kansas.  Kansas, as you may know, is not particularly close to Ohio, and the small town of Quinter, in western Kansas, is not particularly close to an airport.  14 hours of driving each way provides ample time for rumination and audio books.  That, mixed with the wide open landscape of the high plains, makes for a mentally and visually uncluttered week.  For years now I have experienced this regular annual trip as a mental reset.  It helps that it coincides with the closing out of one year and beginning of another.  For this native Ohioan, a week in Kansas is a palate cleanser in between chews on the buffet of life.

The themes for reading and listening material for this year’s trip were the geology of North America, and the origins of the universe and solar system.  Or maybe that’s the same theme: a big zoom out from the present moment to remind oneself of the bigger context: millions, and billions of years of context.

Take a break from beholding the daily headlines.  Behold, the stars in which the elements of your body were created.  Behold, the glaciated Midwestern soil under your feet which blankets the ancient geological core of North America.  It’s enough to makes one’s heart throb and thrill.

Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 1 re-write)

Of the perfect love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, they are Alpha and Omega, they the source, the ending they, of the things that are and have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore.

Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through

Reading: Matthew 2:1-15

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”


As Matthew tells it, it is the act of beholding the stars that brings the wise men to Jerusalem, and eventually Bethlehem.  The magi were a class of intellectuals whose sources of knowledge included stargazing.  They were astrologers.  Tradition says they were from Persia, modern day Iran.  They stand in a long line of people who have looked to the stars to make sense of things happening closer at hand.  In their observations, they see something unusual, check it against their meticulous records, and decide to saddle up for a trip west.  Millions of years of geological activity between them and the Mediterranean had made for a difficult trip.

Within Matthew’s narrative, the visit of the magi to Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus serves as an announcement that what has just happened in Bethlehem is more than just a local phenomenon.  Jesus is Jewish through and through, and will remain so cradle to grave.  These magi from the east are the first non-Jews to honor Jesus.  They come from afar and represent the global, even cosmic significance of the one who would come to be called the Christ.  They find him not by abandoning their own wisdom and culture, but by beholding the truth within what they and their people had studied for centuries.

What Jesus has to offer is for everyone.  The light he embodies illuminates everything and everyone willing to behold it.

We aren’t told how they experience that encounter with the infant Jesus.  The Scriptures are mostly uninterested in the psychology of their characters.  Whatever it was they were expecting, what they saw in Bethlehem would have been entirely unremarkable, all things considered.  Jesus is a human child.  The carbon and oxygen in his Jewish body were sourced from the same cores of stars that produced the carbon and oxygen in the Persian bodies of the stargazing magi.

Another way of putting it would be that Jesus was remarkable because of his humanity, as are other children, whether Jewish or Persian or otherwise.

The magi do seem to have an experience that resembles the act of beholding.  Matthew says “On entering the house, they saw Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”  They give their gifts.

Let’s say they do behold Jesus.  Let’s say they allowed the presence to enter deeply into their field of consciousness.  Let’s say that within that room there was an intersection of presence.  Let’s imagine that the protective membrane around those foreigners, everything that made them separate and other than the holy family softened.  Let’s imagine that the magi had spent a fair amount of their travels preparing themselves for the possibility of being changed, and that they, now empty handed, gifts given, received a gift they carried with them when they returned home.  They had beheld the light in the way Isaiah had counseled his people many centuries prior.

Let’s imagine that those who then beheld them shared in that presence.    Let’s imagine that we who are also foreigners have inherited the light of that presence, passed down through generations by those who have held and honored and shared it.

But there’s more going on in this story.

Behold Herod.  Behold that which will not behold the other and recognize the sacred in that other.  Which seeks to dominate and control.  Behold, if you will, if you can stomach it, one more refugee story.  Mary and Joseph fleeing with Jesus for their lives to escape Herod, given sanctuary in the foreign land of Egypt.  The magi, disobeying Herod’s orders to be informers about Jesus’ location, going home by another route.

Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 2-3 re-write)

By the word was all created.  They commanded and twas done.  Earth and sky and boundless ocean, universe of Three-in-One.  All that sees the moon’s soft radiance, all that breathes beneath the sun, evermore and evermore.

This the one whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord, whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word.  Now it shines, the long expected.  Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore.

Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through

Reading: Ephesians 3:7-13

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see[a] what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him


On this Epiphany Sunday, I invite you to ponder what it is you are in the habit of beholding.  How does that impact your spirit?  How does that affect the way you relate with others?  After a calendar year ending palate cleanse and mental reset, I find it a little easier to notice what I’m in the habit of beholding.  Speaking for myself, I know to stay sane and centered I need the warmth of family and friendship.  I need the perspective that comes with knowing that everything we are is a rich inheritance billions of years old.  I need to remember that, geologically speaking, we are insignificant dust, and theologically speaking, we are radiant presence.  I find both of those things comforting.  I know it’s essential to not look away from the violence of our world, the spirit of Herod still causing refugees and horrible injustices.  To behold that.  To actually let that sink in and be discomforted by that.  And to behold the light and things that cause my heart to throb and thrill.

For many years I’ve found this passage in Ephesians which also goes with Epiphany to be jolting and half-comical.  Essentially, the writer says there’s a great big mystery that’s been hidden since the universe started expanding, but now there’s something that is going to make that mystery known to the whole cosmos, and that thing is… the church.

As someone who spends a fair amount of my time with the church, well aware of our limitations and shortcomings, I want to say to this writer: Are you out of your mind?  It’s got to be one of the most optimistic views out there of what the church can be.

But I think I have an idea what he might be getting at, especially if we expand that notion of church in a very ecumenical multifaith kind of way.  To keep it in this beholding framework, what I think this passage might be saying is that when a group of people behold the holy, when they carry that presence with them in such a way that it infiltrates the way they think and talk and relate with each other and especially relate with those considered by many to be ‘other,’ that this carries a message, it broadcasts a signal, and this love that was from the very beginning, of the perfect love begotten ere the world began to be, that love is the great mystery that we carry and that is made known through us, which is what church is at its core.  Where there are people in Christ-like relationship, there is the church.

We behold, and whether we like it or not, we are beheld by others.

Our sanctuary work has helped me understand this in a new way.  We live in a time in which our government openly practices “enhanced interrogation techniques” against our enemies, and “extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees.  And so it seems we are responding by openly practicing enhanced welcoming techniques, and extreme hospitality.  And I can tell you that people around the state and country are taking notice and that it’s further opening our eyes to what matters.  To put it in the lofty language of Ephesians, it might even be “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”  Now being made known.  To put it in terms of Matthew’s nativity, it’s the thing the magi came seeking, which they carried home with them, which Herod could not overcome.  To put it in the words of the prophet Isaiah, it’s the light which has come.

Christ is born.  God is with us.  We behold the presence, and the mystery is made known, evermore and evermore.

Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 4 re-write)

O ye heights of heav’n adore them, angel hosts, their praises sing.  Powers, dominions, fall before them, and extol our God and king.  Let no tongue on earth keep silent, every voice in concert ring, evermore and evermore. 

Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through

Angels calling | Advent 4 | December 24

Reading: Luke 1:26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Song: STS 11 No wind at the window, v. 1

No wind at the window, no knock at the door; no light from the lampstand, no foot on the floor; no dream born of tiredness, no ghost raised by fear: just an angel and a woman and a voice in her ear.


Gabriel’s Annunciation |  by Jan Richardson

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Violin  No wind at the window, 1x through


As difficult as it must have been for Mary, there’s something almost enviable about being given such a clear task – at least how Luke tells it.  To be visited by a messenger, which is what the word angel means.  A messenger.  To get a message of whatever kind from whatever heavenly or earthly source, that you are needed for this particular task, at this particular time.  To carry out this duty as an act of service to humanity.

How many times in life does one get that message?  A dozen?  Twice?  What if it only happens once?  Is that enough to carry one forward to the end?  What if that angelic moment of clarity and call hasn’t yet happened, or never comes?  Then what?

It’s a rare thing.  Sometimes all we get is the occasional reminder to love your neighbor, with all the details of what that means left entirely unclear.

For Mary, it didn’t begin with clarity.  She is, as Luke states it, “much perplexed” by the words of her messenger, who had simply said, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Mary is, as we hear again later in the gospel, a ponderer.  She is “much perplexed,” and ponders what sort of greeting this might be.

This, I would venture to say, is where most of us live most of the time – being “much perplexed” about this thing called life and all it throws our way, pondering, at varying levels of intensity, what in the world it is we’re doing and whether any of these thousands of messages we’re bombarded with each day have anything significant to say to us.

Rather than greeting each other with “How are you today?” maybe we should be more honest and say “How are you much perplexed today?”

But the messenger has more to say.  Tells Mary to not be afraid.  Repeats that she has found favor, or grace, as the word could be translated.  And makes the big ask.  That she would bear, in her womb, through her very body, this child of whose kingdom there will be no end.

Like Mary, we don’t know what sort of greeting this may be and what sort of angle and angel is taking.  Is she, as Ruben Herrera and Dan Clark told us as we were embarking on our abbreviated discernment about Sanctuary, at the top of a list of one who could pull this off?  Or does Gabriel come to Mary like a worn out member of the Gifts Discernment Committee, having asked every other possible candidate for the position?  After thousands of years of messages ignored or denied, Gabriel appears to this common girl who is just barely a young woman, assuring her that she too is full of enough grace to be eligible to do the work?

We don’t know.

Mary has questions: How can this be?

Gabriel has the only answer possible: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you….nothing will be impossible with God.”

It’s a moment, or a weeklong discernment process, or however long….it’s a time of clarity, in the sense that there’s a vital task at hand, and a decision to be made.  How many times in a lifetime does that happen?  Mary says Yes, and, as the poet Jan Richardson says, it “slice(s) her story in two, dividing all the days before from all the ones to come.”

Vocals  v. 2

“O Mary, O Mary, don’t hide from my face.  Be glad that you’re favored and filled with God’s grace.  The time for redeeming the world has begun; and you are requested to mother God’s Son.”

Reading: Luke 1:39-45   39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[a] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Violin  No wind at the window, 1x through

Poem:  Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light | by Jan Richardson

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.


If Mary did have any further clarity on the matter, it was this: She could not do this alone.  Not just the “me and Joseph” kind of not alone, but calling- in- the- wisdom- of- my- elders- and- ancestors kind of not alone.

As soon as the messenger goes his way, we’re told: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.”  She heads straight away for her relative Elizabeth who is sixth months ahead in her pregnancy, little John the baptizer’s kicks getting stronger by the day.  Elizabeth was also ahead of her in life.

It’s all guess work for us.  Earlier Luke says Elizabeth was “getting on in years.”  Mary was very likely just coming of age, newly eligible for marriage.  With these clues, we can picture Elizabeth old enough to be Mary’s mother, more or less.

And so what can “getting on in years” Elizabeth say to young Mary? What advice to guide her path?  What wisdom to impart?

I love that we have this piece of the story.  If you can’t relate to being visited by an angel, you can at least relate to Mary seeking out Elizabeth.  Who hasn’t sought out an elder, an aunt, a mother or father-figure when faced with disorientation and challenge?  How many Elizabeths have you needed to get you where you are now?   How many times have you already been an Elizabeth for that person who reminds you of your younger self, charged with energy and cluelessness?

What advice to guide her path?

Fortunately for Mary, and to Elizabeth’s credit, she is less interested in giving good advice as giving good news.  Elizabeth reminds Mary, or perhaps enables her to see for the first time, that she is blessed.  “Blessed are you.”  These are the first words that come out of her mouth.  These too are the words of an angel.  Elizabeth becomes another messenger, and not one that swoops in and departs after the singular mission has been completed.  Elizabeth is the kind of angel who accompanies and stays by Mary’s side.  Luke will soon tell us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before returning home.  A whole trimester of living with an angel.

This is how the story of Jesus, who would be called Messiah, Son of the Most High, begins.  Mary and Elizabeth dared to believe that they had a role to play in the story of salvation.  Dared to accept the proposal that their lives, their bodies, their “Yes,” to something they barely understood, were needed, by God.        

Vocals  No wind at the window, vv 3-4

“This child must be born that the kingdom might come: salvation for many, destruction for some: both end and beginning, both message and sign; both victory and victim, both yours and divine.”

No payment was promised, no promises made; no wedding was dated, no blueprint displayed.  Yet Mary, consenting to what none could guess, replied with conviction, “Tell God I say ‘Yes.’”

Reading: Luke 1:46-56

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.


Blessing | by Jan Richardson

Blessed be the ones

who dance

in the corridors of death,

who sing

in the hallways of terror,

who laugh

in the prisons of fear,

who shout

across the silencing walls,

who love

beyond the borders of hatred,

who live

to welcome home freedom,

who die

never turning their heads,

who return

as the rising of hope.


We thought we’d add a slight twist with the roving violin.  My thought was that Alexander might represent a sort of Gabriel, who comes your way, invites you into the call that Mary heard so clearly, and then departs.

Mary’s response to that invitation leads her to Elizabeth.  Elizabeth has a blessing.  Mary has a song.

Mothers sing all kinds of songs to their children.  Mary’s first song is anything but a gentle lullaby.  Some songs are intended to put you to sleep.  Other songs are meant to wake you up.  Mary’s song, what we call the Magnificat, is a wake up call.

She sings in “the hallways of terror” and shouts “across the silencing walls.”

Mary, of course, is not making this up on the spot.  It was a variation on a theme that her people had been singing from ancient times.  It samples from the prophets, it echoes the spirit of Moses and Miriam who sang about God triumphing gloriously and becoming the salvation of their people by throwing the horse and rider of Pharaoh into the sea.  It remixes the song of Hannah, mother of Samuel who brought her young child to the temple, fulfilling a vow that if God would give her a child, she would give God a priest.

Mary sings her song to Elizabeth and, we can also imagine, sings Jesus into his infancy and through his boyhood.  Where did Jesus get all his crazy ideas, anyway?  It’s a song about a salvation that upends all our ways of keeping score and determining who is and isn’t blessed.

It’s that call, that baffling realization that God is looking for a way into this world, and needs us to say Yes in order to bring it about.

Violin  No wind at the window, 1x through

Awake in the dark: Welcoming the season of Advent  | Advent I | December 3

It’s impossible to know with certainty why the birth of Jesus came to be linked to the date we now celebrate it, December 25.  Early Christians didn’t find it particularly important to celebrate at all.  They focused instead on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  The Gospels link those to the Jewish festival of Passover, in the spring.  By the year 200, various writings suggested the date of Jesus’ birth to be January 2, March 25, April 18 or 19, May 20, November 17 or 20.  (Elesha Coffman, “Why December 25?”. August 8, 2008).

Add in December and you’ve got half the months of the year.

The date of December 25 became more solid in the West in the fourth century, as the church increasingly took on the role of being the glue that held together the Roman world.  December 25 had been the Roman date for the winter solstice, the longest night, shortest day, of the year, when the dwindling sunlight began to reclaim hours of the day.

In the fourth century the North African bishop Augustine said this in his Christmas sermon: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” (Augustine, Sermon 192).

Of course, had Augustine been a South African bishop, he would have needed to find a meaningful connection between Christ’s birth and the summer’s longest day, when the most light shines on the earth.

Regardless, for us in the Northern Hemisphere, the birth of Christ, and the season of Advent leading up to it, now correspond with the darkest days of the year.

We regularly associate darkness with the bad, and light with the good.  It fills our language, and thus our imagination.  Darkness is something from which to escape, a symbol of evil, or at minimum, something undesirable and incomplete.

This gets deeply problematic when attached to the racial history of our country, whiteness constructed as a form of dominance over blackness and brownness.

This Advent, and this sermon in particular, is an invitation into the darkness of the season.  The darkness of rest.  The darkness that provides a canopy for solitude and the richness of the inner lfe.  The darkness in which our brains consolidate the events of the day and make new pathways, the foundation of creativity. The darkness of the womb, Mary’s womb, which births Christ.  The womb of the Divine Mother, who births new worlds into being.  The darkness which wraps the light in its embrace.

Hear now several brief reflections, paired with music, scripture, and verses from the song “Joyful is the dark,” HWB 233.  Settle in.  Allow yourself to enter the darkness that is God’s gift to us.

Violin: Joyful is the dark

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 1

Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God, rolling cloud of night beyond all naming, majesty in darkness, energy of love, Word in flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Reading: John 1:1-5, 14

Reflection: “Dark Advent” poem

“Dark Advent,” by Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina.

First, there’s one word in this poem that needs a brief explanation.  It’s the word tehom.  It’s a Hebrew word that appears in Genesis chapter one.  It refers to the deep, the watery abyss out of which creation emerges.

Genesis 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of tehom, the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

“Dark Advent”

In the beginning was the end
and in the end, silence
and the silence is God.
She was and is God,
all of life born through her.

She flashes rays of darkness
and the whiteness does not overcome her
because in her is life
and her life is flesh
like midnight.

In the dark
her eyes flicker tehom
and her chest trembles mine
with the quiet of the most high.

We have seen her glory:
a raven’s black sheen,
beauty’s shadow.

Violin: Joyful is the dark

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 2

Joyful is the dark, spirit of the deep, winging wildly o’er creation, silken sheen of midnight, plumage black and bright, swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Reading: Mark 13:24-27


Whenever, in the Gospels, Jesus quotes a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, my NRSV Study Bible gives the reference in the notes section.  It’s a nice feature, a frequent reminder that Jesus’ speech is peppered with borrowed phrases.  In Mark 13:24-25, when Jesus speaks those ominous words about sun, moon, and stars going dark, the powers in the heavens shaken up, the note section looks like a family reunion of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Daniel, Zechariah, even the non-biblical book of 2 Esdras gets an honorable mention.  And here’s why: When Jesus says these words, it’s not so much that he’s quoting any particular one of them.  It’s that he’s piecing them together, evoking the entire apocalyptic stream of the prophetic tradition.  Because if there’s one thing the prophets can agree on besides the importance of doing justice, it’s that the whole system that holds us in its grasp is teetering on the edge of collapse.

So begins the liturgical year in the church.  So begins Advent.

“In the beginning was the end,” a collapse of everything.

Or, not everything.  Just the things that appear to be most stable.  The fixtures that order our days.  The rhythms we set our clocks to.  Like the moon, and the stars, the sun.  The prophets forecast poetic darkness.  Only after this collapse, after the darkness receives all the broken pieces of the day, only after this, will the Human One come and create anew.

For Mark’s original audience, the collapse of their world was the Jewish temple being destroyed by the Romans.  It was part of the Roman strategy, shock and awe to put down the Jewish rebels trying to reclaim their homeland through guerilla style warfare.

The rebellion didn’t work.  When the temple was destroyed, with it went the symbolic universe the structure had upheld.  It was both a crisis of politics, and a crisis of meaning.  The fixture that orders life is no more, the powers in the heavens are shaken, the sun goes dark.  The cell phone battery goes dead and Siri’s voice fades.  You have no map for this road.  You’re driving blind.

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 5

Joyful is the dark depth of love divine, roaring, looming thunder-cloud of glory, holy, haunting beauty, living, loving God.  Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

Reading: Mark 13:28-37


Here’s the hardest thing: When the sun is darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars are falling from the heavens, and the great powers in the heavens and the earth are shaken – The hardest thing is to keep awake.

Not the kind of awake where you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep., restless because of everything.  That kind of awake is easy, too easy.  That kind of awake is exhausting.

The hardest thing is the kind of awake where you’re alert, paying attention, mindful.  Awake like the Buddha.  Awake like Christ.  Awake, as in woke.

As it goes, apocalyptic moments, apocalyptic times, are not all that rare.  We live through multiple apocalypses.  The world we thought we knew collapses.  The light we thought was guiding our way goes away, and we’re left in the dark.

After that mashup of the prophets, a dozen dark flavors of apocalypse, Jesus turns his disciples’ attention away from collapse and toward a tree.  A fig tree.  When all else fails, find a tree.  Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says.  When it’s winter you can’t see the life within it.  You can’t observe the roots weaving through the dark soil, but watch.  Watch for its branches to become tender.  When they do, they’ll put out leaves, as if from nowhere, and you know summer is near.

The key, the hardest thing, is to keep awake in the dark.

Jesus goes on to name the watches of the night through which the disciples must keep awake.  “Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep.”

These are the same watches of the night narrated in the following chapter, Mark 14, when Jesus gathers with his disciples for their last supper in the evening, and they go to Gethsemane at midnight, and Peter denies Jesus at the cockcrow, and the chief priests consult on Jesus’ fate at dawn.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again asks the disciples to keep awake.  It’s the hardest thing to do when your world is collapsing.

Sometimes it becomes too much, and we need companions to keep awake for us.

Vocals and Violin: Joyful is the dark, verse 4, verse 3

Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb, waiting for the wonder of the morning.  Never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom; darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark, shadowed stable floor; angles flicker, God of earth confessing, as with exultation Mary, giving birth, hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

Reading: Luke 1:46-48


In the beginning darkness hovered over the surface of tehom.  This is the foundation of creativity and new life.  The first Sunday of Advent speaks of the end of worlds, the tragedy of collapse, the possibility that the darkness that follows provides the shelter in which the new creation is born.  Like a womb.

And so it’s Mary who serves as our chief guide through this season.  Mary, the unsuspecting Palestinian Jewish teenage peasant girl.  Mary, who said Yes to the divine messenger without fully knowing what she was committing to.  Mary whose body becomes a temple, a sanctuary for God.  Mary, within whom Christ is formed.

The outlines of this story will take on color in front of our eyes this season.  You can take it home and add your own colors.  There is a life growing within Mary.  “In her is life /and her life is flesh / like midnight.”

There is a life growing within us.  Like the fig tree.  The darkness embraces us, like deep down soil around roots.  Like silence.  No one knows the day or the hour of this great birth.  Stay awake in the dark.

Let’s hold silence for one minute, after which we’ll sing together all five verses of “Joyful is the dark.”

Congregational Song: Joyful is the dark, verses 1-5

“Wisdom has built her house” | November 12

Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6; Matthew 11:28-30

There is a house with a table, set for company.  On this table is a feast: Wine and bread and meat.  Everything that makes for a good meal.

The doors of this house open wide, always unlocked, ready to receive whoever walks in.

It’s not a secret.  It’s not a hidden place, tucked in some out-of-the way grove.  There are no fences or gates, no passcodes.

The owner of this house is Wisdom.  She built it.  She set up the posts, leveled the beams, designed the way this room flows into that one.

Wisdom has built her house and gives an open invitation.  She walks through the city, calling out.  She cruises the countryside, searching for takers.  She opens her contacts and selects “Send All.”  Wisdom has issued an invitation:  Come to me, feast, rest, learn.

Even better, the house that Wisdom built will come to you.  Look for it, and there it is.  Occasionally it shows up when we’re not even looking.

A few weeks back I had one of those all too rare moments where I may have briefly stepped inside this house and glanced around.

Back in the spring when I was writing the Sabbatical grant I included funds for a new bike.  Thankfully, the Lilly Foundation deemed this worthy of Sabbatical activity.  They issued the full grant check, with the encouragement to begin making purchases and reservations and whatever else in preparation for next summer’s Sabbatical.  So on a Monday afternoon in the middle of October, Abbie and I headed down to Baer Wheels, on High Street, to purchase a bike I had been eyeing.

This moment began with a stray thought, about half way down the sidewalk, looking at the trees on the street.  It was a beautiful fall day and even though the trees still had almost all their leaves, I found myself already missing them.

Then another thought: It’s a Monday, my Sabbath.

It’s a Sabbath, and it’s a beautiful day outside and these trees are stunning.

It’s a Sabbath, it’s a lovely day among these trees and I’m healthy and going for a walk down a beautiful street, and I’m sharing this with someone I love.

It’s a Sabbath, and it’s a beautiful day outside, and the trees, and I’m healthy and going for a walk down this beautiful street with my wife whom I love.  And all our children are at school, good schools, learning important things.  And we’re walking to a bike store.  Not driving to a bike store, walking to a bike store right around the corner from where we live.  And I’m going to buy a bike, with other people’s money.

How in the world could I almost miss this moment?

If I can’t be grateful and feast on the goodness of this moment, then I have officially lost at the game of life.  I turned to Abbie and said just as much.  She agreed.

So maybe it took all of those factors to finally hear the invitation, but I heard it.  Hopefully you’ve heard it at least once.  We glimpse that house that’s been waiting for us.  We step inside for a bit.  The single dimension of the line of time, in which we so frequently move from point A to point B and on to points C and D…the line of time takes on width and height and becomes a place to dwell.  The second and minute hands keep moving, but there’s still something there, something that feels almost like a place, to walk around, even explore, or sit and rest for a while.  Even, have a meal.

Seventy years ago Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel coined the phrase a “sanctuary in time.”  He was referring to the Jewish Sabbath.  While other ancient cultures focused on holy objects, holy spaces, holy buildings, it was the peculiarity of the Jewish tradition, Heschel wrote, to focus on the holiness of time.  The sanctification of time.

Writing in early 1945, with the bullets and bombs of World War II still flying, the death camps still exterminating his people, Heschel wrote, “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space.  It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time.  In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space.  To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective.  Yet to have more does mean to be more.  The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.  But time is the heart of existence.” (Sabbath, p. 3)

Heschel pointed back to Genesis 1, in which the heavens and earth are created.  The first thing Elohim the Creator declares to be holy is not an object of creation, not even us amazing humans, but the Sabbath.  Time.  “So Elohim blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”  Elohim creates a sanctuary in time, a cathedral.

Or, to tie it back in to Wisdom, a house.

“Wisdom has built her house..and set her table,” Proverbs 9 says.

Wisdom is one of the unsung heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures, or at least under-reported.  In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is speaking in the first person.  She says, “Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23).  As this passage would have it, even before Genesis 1, Wisdom was.  Wisdom playfully accompanies and assists in the process of creation.

When that singular, unimaginably dense point of pure possibility goes bang, it is through Wisdom that the cosmos takes on length and width and height and becomes a place to dwell.  The house that Wisdom built is made possible in space, and appears to us in time.  Wisdom is a way to live, not just as biological creatures that are born and die along the vast timeline of history, but to live well, as  spiritual beings.  To consciously live in communion with the same Spirit that created and creates us.

Like that rare moment when you realize that everything around you is a gift.  The moment holds you there and extends the feast.

The book of Sirach didn’t make it into the Hebrew Bible, but it was known and influential by the time of Jesus.  In Sirach, Wisdom again speaks for herself and says, “Come to me, all you who desire me and eat your fill of my fruits” (24:19).  Later it says about Wisdom, “Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by” (52:26).  It’s Wisdom back in invitation mode, calling out, inviting, maybe even pleading.

So when Jesus evokes those words in the passage that we read from Matthew, he’s evoking the entire Wisdom tradition, inviting people in the same way that Wisdom invites all people, to enter into the sanctuary in time that he offers.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is good (a better translation than “easy”), and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

This invitation goes out to all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens.

Somewhere along the path of life we all qualify.

We pick up burdens that aren’t ours to carry.  They accumulate like software on a hard drive, things we thought we needed, cluttering our lives and slowing down processing speed.

Or we have other people’s burdens loaded onto us.  A loved one’s addiction catches us between wanting to love and support them while also trying to avoid enabling behavior.  A perpetrator’s sexual violence becomes a survivor’s trauma, weighted with shame and confusion.

Or sometimes there are loads so generationally ingrained and socially pervasive they hide in the very patterns we assume to be normal.  In 1899 Rudyard Kippling wrote a poem called “The White Man’s Burden.”  It was during the Philippine-American War.  The poem suggested that while it involved sacrifice and thankless labor, it was the moral duty of whites to advance civilization into the lands of non-white folks, for their own good.  Military conquest was one of the key ways of doing this.

Half a century later Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would reflect on the bitter fruits of technical civilization, consumed with the conquest of space.

We carry personal and collective burdens.  We carry them through our days, from point A to point B, and on to points C and D.  They come to define how we move through time, how we inhabit the world.

It would be nice if Jesus’ invitation were one of simply laying down our burdens.  “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Lay your burden down and go forth free of weight and obligation.”

Instead, Jesus offers something like a burden-exchange program.  Laying down one burden and accepting another.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is good, and my burden is light”

Rather than simply lay down the white man’s burden, and walk away free of further responsibility, we are given the holy burden of decolonizing our minds and building just relationships.  Rather than simply doing our own trauma work, we are given opportunities to walk with others on the same journey, a good and holy, and even light burden.  Rather than just de-cluttering our lives, we are given the holy task of living fully into the moment, of taking up Wisdom’s invitation to her feast, entering her house, inviting friends.

A sanctuary in time.  Hearing the gentle and fierce call of Christ, into restoration, into the house that Wisdom is building.